Rice’s hunger for trouble
Over the years rice has grown into Nigeria’s stable food. It can be made in several ways: cooked, steamed, fried, ground. You can have it the way you want it, as coconut rice, waterleaf rice, jollof rice, tuo shinkafa or you can have it in a form that those who like it call “combined honours,” that is rice and beans.
In the 50s, in the Eastern part of Nigeria, rice was not the staple food. In the rural communities it is still not the main event today, Garri and Yams still rule the roost and rice is considered a Christmas, New Year or special occasion delicacy. But in the urban centres rice is the king. It is the king of foods because it is easy to cook, even a bachelor can cook it. It is kind to the tongue and kind to the stomach.
In the 50s, the rice we ate was grown in Nigeria. It was not polished. When it was rice day a mat would be rolled out and the rice poured on it. We would sit around and pull the rice aside in small bits and fish out the stones. It was fun since we knew that what we were doing was likely to give us food that will be kind to our teeth. It would be stone-free. We did not consider rice to be a problem.
Today, rice is becoming a problem of a sort because of its price tag. A year or so ago, you could buy a 50kg bag of rice for N10,000 or less. Today you may have to buy it for N15,000 or more. There is a report that some officials of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) were caught recently trying to rebag for profit rice that was meant for internally displaced persons in the North East. They did not know that rice, while a friendly commodity, has always had a big hunger for trouble especially when one tampers with its price. They may soon find out.
The Japanese government found that out in 1918. For about two months, July to September of that year, about 10 million people in 33 cities, 104 towns and 97 villages took part in the most notorious rice riots in history. The problem was that the price of rice had doubled within a few months while wages remained stagnant. This generated a spontaneous mass uprising particularly because rice is Japan’s staple food. The placards read “sell rice cheap” “down with wicked dealers.” The workers raided rice shops and the houses of profiteers. It took huge contingents of the police and 50,000 soldiers to quell the riots and bring the situation to normal.
Nearer home, in Liberia, a similar situation occurred during the regime of President William R. Tolbert Jr. His Minister of Agriculture, Florence Chinoweth, had submitted a memo to the cabinet recommending an increase in the price of a 100-pound bag of rice from $22 to $26. The reason, according to the minister, was to get rice farmers to double their production since rice was Liberia’s number one food. However, a young man who just returned from America, Gabriel Baccus Mathews, called the members of his opposition party, the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL) into the streets of Monrovia on April 14, 1979.
The protest was supposed to be peaceful but it turned violent. Shops were looted and owners molested. Matthews ignited the riot by telling the people that the price increase was to benefit Chenoweth and the Tolbert family who, he claimed, were big rice farmers. Chenoweth was fired and the price of rice was reduced to $20. Tolbert struggled to hold the country together but the collateral damage of that crisis-afflicted his government irreparably. A year later, he was overthrown by Samuel Doe and Matthews was made the Foreign Minister.
Nigeria has had its own romance with rice and it wasn’t a story of Nigeria and rice living happily ever after. During the 1980/81 period, there was an astronomical leap in the price of rice. Local production was low. Rice importers needed a licence to bring in the product. A lot of rice was brought in by the NPN loyalists who were in the good books of the party denizens. In spite of the huge imports which the media dubbed the “rice armada” the price of rice had tripled. Umaru Dikko, the then Minister of Transport, was appointed chair of the Presidential Task Force on the commodity. The rice was hoarded or smuggled into neighbouring countries for sale.
Dikko took up the job with dimpled exuberance. He it was who said that Nigerians had not yet started to eat the remnants of food from the refuse bin. We all thought he would not let us start eating from there. As you know, politicians’ words are always coated with saccharine. We thought our salvation was at the door. We did not know that we were in for a rude awakening. Dikko could not stop the rice which was labeled “Presidential Task Force” from performing a disappearing act and the price of rice from going north.
I was the Editor of the Sunday Times at the time. Two of my staff, a reporter and photographer, had gone to Cotonou for an assignment. Lo and behold they found bags and bags of the Presidential Task Force rice there on sale. They did an investigation of it and took photographs. I thought it was a good idea to give the story good play in the Sunday Times so that the government would know where the rice was disappearing to. I did so dutifully. The NPN government of Shehu Shagari was livid and asked me to publish a denial of this true story. I refused, of course.
And what happened next? The Daily Times which was edited by Martin Iroabuchi published a story refuting the Sunday Times story, a story they did not investigate, a story they did not publish in the first instance and a story that was absolutely true. I was shocked but I knew that from that day onwards I was a marked man. Dikko was so powerful that he was called Deputy President behind his back even though there was a Vice President, Alex Ekwueme, and no office of Deputy President ever existed in our political lexicon.
Now, rice is hugging the headlines. Its fortune is rising. So is its price. And strange things are beginning to happen around this exotic food item that seems to have the hunger and reputation for trouble making. A certain Yusuf Bala went to Singer Market in Fagge LGA, Kano, with his five-year old son. He wanted to buy a 50kg bag of rice worth N14,000 but did not have the money. So he left his son with the rice merchant, Suleiman Bagudu, took the rice away and promised to return soon with the money. Six hours later, Bagudu’s restiveness could no longer be contained. He asked the young boy to take him to his father’s house. On seeing him Bala apologised profusely for his bad behaviour which occurred because of his impecuniosity. Bagudu, a kind hearted merchant, the opposite of Shylock, the merchant of Venice, donated the rice to him and handed over his son to him as well.
The Bala story is evidence of the rise of rice in our food consumption narrative. Its dominance is becoming unmistakable. The thirst for it is becoming unquenchable. Now that it can be cooked in various ways anyone can find which variety turns him on and he can go for it. Will rice become the nation’s main menu item? It is getting there.
The globalisation of its production and marketing will ensure the globalisation of its consumption. But which one are Nigerians consuming? Uncle Ben’s or Uncle Ofada’s. Both. But I can tell you that Uncle Ofada’s rice is becoming more attractive to many families and party goers than hitherto. But its critics have three things against it (a) They say it doesn’t taste like rice. My view: Eat it like something other than rice, then (b) They say its colour is not snow white. My view: Haven’t we got enough white in our system: white garri, white soup, white sugar, white eggs? (c) It has sand in it. My view: Take out the sand the way we used to do many years ago and you will be fine.
Now the good side of Uncle Ofada’s rice (a) It is a foreign exchange conserver (b) It puts our farmers in business (c) it reduces unemployment (d) It is affordable (e) Above all, it is more nutritious than the polished, imported rice. This is the type of rice recommended by nutritionists for good health. Nigerians are becoming creative in the food business. They now package suya in plastic cans. They also package soups such as okro, afang, edikang ikong etc in ready to cook and ready to eat formats. I expect that very soon Uncle Ofada’s rice will be treated with more dignity than just being wrapped in leaves whose hygiene you are unsure of. Some years ago an Ondo businessman called Jobi Fele used to package jollof rice for sale. It was a meal I always attacked with razzle-dazzle enthusiasm. The man died on April 24, 2011 and the canned jollof rice apparently died with him.
Can someone do some interesting things with Uncle Ofada’s rice? That is the challenge.